‘Autonomous’ does not necessarily mean ‘unmanned’

I was assured last week in Houston that “autonomous doesn’t mean unmanned”. The expert who offered me his wisdom is a senior player in the energy shipping sector and heads a team of techno-wizards who should know about these things. So it wasn’t an idle statement and has deep relevance for shipping.
It’s not the first time I had heard this attempt to head off one of the most divisive conversations in maritime since the whole ballast water fiasco ripped up the myth that regulators were working hand in glove with marine equipment manufacturers. Five years ago, when “autonomous” emerged from the mists to become the answer to all shipping’s problems, it was laid on pretty thickly that there would be no crew needed to oversee these connected vessels running between connected terminals, with skeleton teams of technicians in operations control centres maintaining propulsion or pumping systems simply using holograms. There would be no accommodation block, because crews are no longer necessary on board, the space created now being filled with paying cargo. The big debate then was, how were the remote technicians able to do more than play computer games when they had no experience of life at sea? The implication of such a question was that autonomous or, to be more accurate, remotely controlled shipping did indeed mean “unmanned”. But there has been a softening of stance among the experts, in line with a great deal of rethinking among the autonomous commercial airline and ride share enthusiasts. Human error is still regarded as the number one cause of accidents and incidents in transportation but, somewhat ironically, such is our hesitancy to entirely trust technology that we think it best if humans oversee technology. A year ago, Wärtsilä conducted a series of tests on the platform supply vessel Highland Chieftain off the coast of Scotland while remotely operated from San Diego, California. I was told that the PSV’s crew were standing by throughout with instructions to take manual control if anything went wrong. So, if an autonomous ship mirrors an autonomous car in that it is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input, why would this ship need to be manned? Perhaps for maintenance, with advice from ashore, or to pounce on manual controls if the technology malfunctioned.
Rather than “unmanned” — the softened stance suggests “differently manned” — and differently manned means manned. So, in mid-2018, and in spite of the dictionary definition, when it comes to shipping, autonomous does not mean unmanned. And it will be a few more years until it does. Source: LloydslistThe

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